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The Kyoto Experiment (KEX) performing arts festival is marking the beginning of a new era. Not only does it have three new program directors at the helm, it also has a fresh logo and renewed focus on experimentation to boot. Despite a four-month delay due to the spread of COVID-19, the 11th edition of KEX is set to run from Feb. 6 to March 28.

Ever since Yusuke Hashimoto, the former director who stepped down in 2019 after a 10-year reign, launched KEX in 2010, the festival has become a major cultural event, as well as a forum for freedom of expression. Now, with Yoko Kawasaki, Yuya Tsukahara and Juliet Reiko Knapp leading the team, this year’s program will bring the festival’s keyword — experiment — back to the forefront.

During early discussions about shaping their first edition, the directors asked themselves, “What relationship should this experimental festival have with the city of Kyoto, the Kansai region and beyond?” and “What does it mean to create performance experiments in a time of crisis?”

In working through such questions, the directors shaped a framework for the festival with three core programs: Super Knowledge for the Future (SKF), an idea exchange program; Kansai Studies, a research program; and Shows, a performance program.

These three core strands of the festival are represented in string-like form in the new KEX logo. Designed by the festival’s art director, Aiko Koike, the logo represents a range of ideas, from improvisation and experimentation to incompleteness and uncertainty. It is also accessible — anyone could draw it. It could easily turn up in everyday life, perhaps in a bowl of spaghetti or a tangle of shoelaces. “It’s the idea of something that’s very close to you personally,” says Knapp. “In that sense, how can we bring the performing arts closer to people’s lives in a personal way?”

Highlighting the presence of art in the everyday and making it more accessible to audiences is an important element of this year’s KEX. Knapp points out that since the spread of COVID-19, the changing scope of the programs has become all the more relevant to the emerging social, political and cultural landscapes. And so, while each program has a specific function, they overlap in their emphasis on “process.” Highlighting the creative process involved in producing each artistic work is one of the biggest curatorial and editorial shifts at KEX.

Take Kansai Studies. “It’s a program in which we ask artists to research the Kansai area over a long period of time and without a particular purpose at the start. The process is recorded and shared with the audience,” Knapp says. As the participants’ research progresses, the findings are archived on the program’s dedicated website, so that interested visitors can track the findings of each of the research projects.

“It is an experiment to see what can happen on a slower production scale, sharing the processes that the artists go through instead of (presenting) a finished product, which often becomes very sellable on a touring circuit,” Knapp says. The artists currently involved in the research program, which will span three years with a focus on the theme of water, include Toshikatsu Ienari, one of the founders of the Kyoto-based firm Dot Architects, and theater director Nagara Wada.

Playing with sound: Musical group Otoasobi Project and hip-hop artist Seiko Ito will perform improvisational ensemble sessions that explore sound and language during the Kyoto Experiment performing arts festival.
Playing with sound: Musical group Otoasobi Project and hip-hop artist Seiko Ito will perform improvisational ensemble sessions that explore sound and language during the Kyoto Experiment performing arts festival.

In the program Super Knowledge for the Future (SKF), artists and festival-goers are encouraged to discuss and debate social issues that spark the creative process for making experimental art. Through workshops and talks, the program aims to bring fresh awareness to issues that go beyond the art world. Knapp says its deliberately tacky name signals the festival’s sense of playfulness.

Of the three programs, the performance section, Shows, is the most similar to how previous iterations of KEX functioned. Like past years, local, national and international artists have been invited to participate in the festival. With this year’s edition, however, Knapp says that the trio of directors was more interested in works that cross genre boundaries and challenge norms by raising questions, rather than providing answers or prescribing particular ideological views.

“All the Sex I’ve Ever Had,” by the Toronto-based art collective Mammalian Diving Reflex and playwright Darren O’Donnell, is one such piece. Each performance of the show is tailored to the location in which it takes place through workshops with local participants who are over 60 years old. The dialogue-based theater piece draws on the personal sexual experiences of the cast members who speak candidly about their lives. The diversity of backgrounds and the ages of the participants give the piece an intergenerational dimension that serves as a counterpoint to society’s tendency to fixate on younger generations.

It is no surprise that travel restrictions and safety concerns due to COVID-19 have meant changing a number of live shows to screenings held either at the festival or online. Such is the case for “Apollon,” the second part in a performance trilogy by Austrian choreographer Florentina Holzinger. On March 5 and 6, there will be screenings of the show’s six female dancers using a mix of high art and pop culture to perform an adaptation of “Apollo,” a ballet by choreographer George Balanchine. On March 6, Holzinger will give a post-show talk and also run a workshop via Zoom at ROHM Theatre Kyoto.

Similarly, a solo dance piece called “Mercurial George” and a short film titled “Lay Them All Down” by Canadian choreographer Dana Michel will be presented as a double screening at Kyoto Art Theater Shunjuza on Feb. 20. The former work questions the development and function of personal identity, while the latter follows Michel through constantly changing museum spaces. From March 9 to 14, a cute yet grotesque “performative dinner” installation by visual artist Natasha Tontey, as well as a screening of Tontey and other performers devouring the food, will be shown at Kyoto Art Center.

“This Song Father Used to Sing (Three Days in May),” a play by Thai director Wichaya Artamat, will be streamed online from March 24 to 28. The piece revolves around a brother and sister who meet three times to reminisce about their late father. Their seemingly simple stories move from the personal to the political as each meeting coincides with key events in recent Thai history.

As for more local fare, from Feb. 6 to 28 filmmaker and curator Masashi Kohara will present an exhibition at the Kyoto Museum of Crafts and Design called “It’s a Small World: Imperial Festivals and Human Exhibitions.” Through the lens of world’s fair exhibitions that took place during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the show investigates ways in which colonial powers and colonized peoples saw each other.

On March 13 and 14, the Kobe-based Otoasobi Project (otoasobi translates to “playing with sound”) and hip-hop artist Seiko Ito will bring together an intergenerational group, including members with intellectual disabilities, to create an unpredictable exploration of sound and language.

And so, despite the challenges of a global pandemic, with its focus on accessibility, experimentation and process, Kyoto’s experiment in rethinking the potential of performance practice goes on.

Kyoto Experiment takes place from Feb. 6 to March 28 at various venues in Kyoto. For more information, visit kyoto-ex.jp/en.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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